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Q&A with "Out to Lunch" author Stacey Ballis

Ballis explores friendship, love and loss in her latest food-themed novel, "Out to Lunch."
Berkley Trade

In “Out to Lunch,” foodie fiction writer Stacey Ballis introduces readers to Jenna, a woman who thought she had it all, and what happens when her best-laid plans turn upside down. Aimee and Jenna had been inseparable since college, eventually partnering up in a successful catering and events company. Now in their 40s, the pair has sold the business for a massive chunk of change, and both thought they were both set for life, dreaming of the fun they’d have together in an early retirement. But after Aimee becomes seriously ill and passes away, Jenna finds herself adrift without her other half.

Jenna thought she’d had time to process Aimee’s death after such a long sickness, but consumed by grief, she rarely leaves the house, even to visit the bookshop-slash-cooking venue they both ran. Struggling with loss is bad enough, but Aimee also asked Jenna to look after her scatterbrained husband, Wayne—a man Jenna can’t stand—including controlling his finances. Now Jenna has to approve Wayne’s expenses to keep him from getting into yet another failed business scheme, and his constant presence and bull-in-a-china-shop personality is getting old, fast.

As she deals with Wayne's antics, Jenna finds solace through her cooking, and also from “The Voix.” Suddenly it's Aimee’s voice she can’t stop hearing, whether it’s telling her what to wear or criticizing her new boyfriend. But when Wayne actually comes up with an idea that seems worth investing in, Jenna’s forced to change her perceptions and start living again.

“Out to Lunch” is a must for women’s fiction fans, and anyone who can’t imagine life without their best friend can relate to Jenna’s story. With loads of laugh-out-loud moments and touching ones, too, you’ll devour this novel just as fast as people tuck into Jenna’s cooking. The book also includes some fantastic recipes at the end, taken straight from Jenna and Aimee’s meals in the story.

Ballis took the time to talk about The Voix, writing advice and what’s up next for her.

KC: What gave you the idea to write this story?

SB: I had been toying with the idea of the “parent out of the blue” type story, the woman who unexpectedly finds themselves with a child to raise, but it felt like I couldn’t bring something new to that story. But the idea of finding yourself with unexpected “custody” of an adult, especially one you don’t particularly like, I thought that was fresh and potentially very funny!

KC: One of things I like about this book is you incorporate a somewhat paranormal/magical element with “The Voix” without it seeming campy. Whether Aimee’s voice was real or imagined by Jenna, how do you think that helped her character grow throughout the book?

SB: Anyone who doesn’t have conversations with imaginary people when they are alone, in the car, cleaning the house, is missing out! I have always practiced difficult discussions, or had potential arguments, or worked out issues with friends by talking it through and playing both parts. I wanted The Voix to feel natural, that little angel or devil on your shoulder, but made somewhat manifest. I don’t think it reads like Aimee is really there engaging with Jenna, I hope it feels more like her connection to Jenna is so strong, that she has a presence despite being gone. I also wanted the reader to get little glimpses into who Aimee was and what their energy together was like. And I think the one thing that felt true was that Aimee was the dominant personality, and now that she is gone, Jenna needs to step up and be more self-reliant and proactive in her own life, and watching her at first rely on The Voix and then eventually push back at it, helps to show how she is healing.

KC: The descriptions of food and recipes in the book made me so hungry while reading it! Did you write the book first with a specific recipe in mind for that scene, or did you plug in the food specifics later?

SB: I let the food in the book come organically, and usually it is something I’m actually craving in the moment! Which helps, because then I can go make the recipe and claim that it is for work.

KC: Part of the book deals with the comic con scene, something Jenna knows very little about. (Any Buffy fan will love how Nathan Fillion showed up, by the way!) What kind of research did you do to craft Wayne and Elliot’s world? Or, unlike Jenna, were you already familiar?

SB: I’m not a huge sci-fi/fantasy girl, but I did watch Buffy and Angel back in the day, and Firefly, naturally. My first husband was major Star Wars/Dungeons and Dragons guy, so a lot of that I picked up by osmosis. Most of my research was just bopping around on the interwebs and looking at fan websites.

KC: Do you relate more to Jenna’s personality or to Aimee’s?

SB: I like to think that I’m more of a blend between the two. I have more of Aimee’s sass and confidence, and Jenna’s practicality. Obviously the cooking part is me as well. But I really respond to the symbiotic nature of their relationship, and hope that it honors my relationships with my besties and the way we complement each other!

KC: What’s in your TBR pile for 2014?

SB: I have a teetering stack waiting for me to finish my new book! I have books by Joshilyn Jackson, J. Courtney Sullivan, Donna Tartt, Elinor Lipman, Eric May, Ted Goeglein. More that I’ve probably forgotten buying. I’m hoping February will be a hunker down and devour them all kind of month.

KC: If you could choose any place to write, where would it be?

SB: France. I love it there, and fantasize about going there with my husband for six months and splitting the time between Paris and Provence and seeing what book comes out!

KC: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

SB: Be true to yourself, let your own voice shine through, and write what is deepest in you. And don’t be afraid to use the delete button when it is bad!

KC: Favorite way to get through the winter?

SB: Snuggling up with my hubby, a good bottle of wine, old movies and something soul-soothing bubbling on the stove!

KC: What’s up next for you?

SB: I am finishing my next book, "Recipe for Disaster," as we speak! It is about a house flipper whose life gets turned upside-down forcing her to live in the ruin of a home she’s in the process of renovating while trying to put her personal and professional life back on track. I’ve just signed for two more novels, so I’m working on figuring out what those are going to be. And I’m doing my first digital cookbook this year!